Second Sunday of Easter, year B, April 11, 2021
The book of Acts tries to give pagan converts to Christianity a portrait of how the earliest members gradually transcended their Jewish roots. Here they're shown doing as a church the kind of sharing usually done only in families of kin. And wealthy and poor members are mixing in unprecedented ways.
The community of John had dissident members who preached a weak doctrine of Jesus, who claimed to special knowledge of God, and who did not practice Jesus' commandment to love one another. This letter tries to heal the wounds caused by these members in the community.
For converts, perhaps facing persecution, who were wavering in their commitment to Jesus, John writes a gospel that everywhere prompts the reader to make a decision to accept Jesus. Here he assures the reader that past sins, even unbelief, can be overcome and need not prevent people from giving themselves to Jesus.
Our Liturgical Setting: Every Easter season, the Lectionary tours Acts of the Apostles. In liturgical year B, the Sunday-by-Sunday selections highlight the internal life of the earliest Christian community, Peter's preaching mostly to Jews, and a hint of the evangelization of Gentiles.
The Historical Situation: Voluntary pooling of resources may seem weird to modern Westerners, as novel as Karl Marx's ideas seemed in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But this was not so in the Middle East, then or now. What is remarkable here is the locus of the pool: the church community rather than the blood family. Secondly, owners of property were few and elite; their mixing on this level with the mass of common folk was also astonishing. And the authority accorded to the apostles is also worthy of note. So this passage implies that the Christian community is assuming the nature of a family and beginning to overcome distinctions based on wealth. Furthermore, the apostles are beginning to take on authority formerly granted to Judaism's priests. The apostles' "careers," so to speak, also begin to conform to that of Jesus.
Proclaiming It: These are important changes with big implications, but these selectively chosen verses report them in a somewhat offhand way. Don't be fooled. That this sharing was quite a big deal is made perfectly clear by verses that follow shortly, Acts, chapter 5, verses 1-11, a story scandalous to moderns that you won't find in the Sunday Lectionary.
Though our text lacks such juicy details, the lector should try to express the revolutionary nature of the social changes that faith in Jesus brought about. To prepare, meditate on the contrasts, if any, between the community described and the community in which you live and worship. Is your church of one heart and one mind? What possessions do you hold in common with any other members? Is there a preacher, or anyone, bearing witness with great power to the resurrection? Does the public accord great favor to your church? Is there no one needy among you? Blessed is your church to the extent that you can say, like they say in the TV commercial for Staples, "Yeah, we've got that." But to the extent that you cannot, this reading is a wake-up call, and deserves to sound as jarring as an alarm clock or reveille on a bugle.
The Historical Situation: In liturgical year B, we read from the First Letter of Saint John on the Sundays of Easter. Here's a description of the communities who received the original letter, adapted from the Introduction to the letter, in The New American Bible: They are specific Christian communities,
Now let's look at the reading verse by verse.
|Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the father loves (also) the one begotten by him.||This means "everyone who claims to love God has to love the others whom God has begotten; the ones that God has begotten are the ones who believe that Jesus is the Christ." |
These respond to conditions that I've numbered 5 and 11.
|In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments.||This tells us how to be sure we're square with the requirements of verse 1.|
|For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,||Verse 3 refutes the heretics' claim (see number 9, above) that special knowledge of God is required, simplifying everything. It raises the question, "And why can't the heretics keep these commands? They're not burdensome, after all."|
|for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith. Who (indeed) is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?||Verses 4 & 5 add this about those whose believe Jesus is the Son of God (refuting the heretics on point 6, above): They conquer the world (although the verses don't say what it means to conquer the world).|
|This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and blood. The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the Spirit is truth.||Verse 6 is something of a change in subject. The water refers to Jesus' baptism, at the beginning of his ministry, where the Spirit testified to him. The blood refers to Jesus' bloody death at the end of his ministry. Both refer to the sacraments, as then known, baptism and the Eucharist. With respect to the heresies afflicting the community, these refer to the issues numbered 7 and 13|
Proclaiming It: Your listeners need not know all this background or appreciate these nuances intellectually. You can serve them best by reading the verses one at a time and pausing significantly after each verse. Let each gem of truth sink in a moment. Don't risk blotting it out with another sentence delivered too soon. Different verses may strike chords in the hearts of different listeners. When you read them separtely in the table above (left column only), which strikes you?
Loosening up, a water-color exercise by Mike Holdinghaus, American, b. 1952. Used with permission. Click here for a larger version
This page updated April 5, 2021